Joseph Sarno, the Chekhov of Softcore


Infidelity timed around the LIRR schedule. Key parties and sloppy boozing among the split-level set. Swappers, cheaters, hookers, and go-go girls. This was the world of filmmaker Joseph Sarno, who died in April of this year in his Manhattan home, age 89, living long enough to see his fecund output celebrated far beyond Times Square.

Not among the sexual-revolution opportunists who self-advertised as First Amendment Freedom Riders, Sarno’s soft-core psychodramas have been reappraised in the past decade on the merit of their own earnest, low-rent artistry (and through the efforts of home-video labels Something Weird and Retro Seduction Cinema, and writer Michael J. Bowen, at work on a Sarno biography). In the years following a retro at 2003’s New York Underground Film Festival, the owl-browed eminence was fested and feted across Europe. His work now returns stateside, to Anthology, for a five-film farewell.

Brooklyn-born in 1921, Joseph W. Sarno and his family emigrated with the first big wave of Long Island suburbanites to the middle-class commuter country that would be the setting of his defining work. Before becoming an avid chronicler of female erotic reaction, Sarno lived a certified red-meat Greatest Generation life: high school boxing and football, the Navy in World War II, a couple of marriages. Then, during a professional lull while making industrial films and writing ad copy, the nearing-40 Sarno wrote a sex movie at the suggestion of a friend. Co-director on that 1961 artists-and-models peek-a-boo, Nude in Charcoal, Sarno wrote and directed all of his 75-plus films that followed.

Sarno brought rare rigor to nil-budget shoots with schedules of a week or less. Actors—schlubby men and a menagerie of females with fascinating dimple chins and overbites—look out from the itchy-tight cell of a master shot. Choreographing down to the meaningful arch of a plucked, penciled-in eyebrow, Sarno got responsive performances in edged-with-desperation scenes that were mostly repetitive build-ups and delays rather than actual sexual calisthenics. (The “money shots” in Sarno’s ’60s nudie cuties are generally girls shucking bra straps off to reveal their bare shoulders.)

From Nude’s Village nightspot “Bongo Tom’s,” Sarno took the beat of bump-and-grind jazz quartets into the suburbs. He shot exteriors in hometown Amityville for his first color film, Moonlighting Wives (1966), the tale of Clairol-redhead Tammy Latour building an empire of play-for-pay housewives. Also in that year’s bumper crop was The Bed and How to Make It!, with broad-hipped Lolita Francine Ashley fermenting revolt in Aunt Patricia McNair’s motel, and scenes shot inside a Brooklyn bar called Cocoa Poodle. It’s this period that Andrew Sarris was thinking of in 1971 when appreciating in these pages the “suburban Italian look” of Sarno’s actors, and the “cramped compositions and flat perspective [that] were the ideal stylistic expressions of a charmingly naive Satanism.” 

Sarno’s filmmaking, including a Florida vacation, remained East Coast–vernacular until the late ’60s. Then, in the heyday of “Scandinavian permissiveness,” Sarno decamped for Sweden at the behest of producer Jerry Gross. In 1968, Inga, the first of Sarno’s many runaway Swedish productions, began the flashing meteoric sex-stardom of Marie Liljedahl, playing the titular orphaned 17-year-old. Monica Strömmerstedt plays Inga’s guardian aunt (yet another), still trying to make the scene at 33, conspiring to auction her charge’s virginity so as to maintain an expensive affair with a sullen young writer-gigolo. The movie opens on Liljedahl playing with wind-up toys, then cuts to automaton kids jerking their hips to a pop song that blares about how “Everybody’s so hung up to do what they really feel.” Free love is in fashion, and Sarno’s swinging Stockholm is trapped in lockstep “liberated” beat. The filmmaker always recognized the pitfalls of the scene he celebrated.

Inga was one of many all-in-the-family scenarios that Sarno filmed through the years. In 1974’s Confessions of a Young American Housewife, fine-boned swinger Rebecca Brooke wanders among bare-limbed trees and trickling acoustic guitar, wondering how to liberate ripe-to-bursting widowed mother Jennifer Welles, who ends up almost too free when visiting a lesbian shaman. So many of Sarno’s last acts emphasize loss, abandonment, and punishment, but this shouldn’t brand him a closet prude. Desire in these films is a painful-ecstatic delirium, just too powerful to ever be casual.

Come the release of Confessions, the market for soft-core blocked out like Uncle Vanya was disappearing. Throats deepened, censorship laws loosened, and sex flicks without gross anatomy became antique. Sarno began doing hush-hush hard-core shoots, buried quietly under a mountain of pseudonyms such as “Irving Weiss,” “Monica Fitta,” and a dozen others. But when he was just Joe Sarno, there was nobody quite like him.